Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

Glenn Greenwald is a civil rights attorney, a blogger for Salon, and the author of a new Cato Institute policy study called “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Policies.” The paper examines Portugal’s experiment with decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use, which began in 2001. Nick Gillespie, editor of reason.com and reason.tv, sat down with Greenwald in April.

Q: What is the difference between decriminalization and legalization?

A: In a decriminalized framework, the law continues to prohibit drug usage, but it’s completely removed from the criminal sphere, so that if you violate that prohibition or do the activity that the law says you cannot do you’re no longer committing a crime. You cannot be turned into a criminal by the state. Instead, it’s deemed to be an administrative offense only, and you’re put into an administrative proceeding rather than a criminal proceeding.

Q: What happened in Portugal?

A: The impetus behind decriminalization was not that there was some drive to have a libertarian ideology based on the idea that adults should be able to use whatever substances they want. Nor was it because there’s some idyllic upper-middle-class setting. Portugal is a very poor country. It’s not Luxembourg or Monaco or something like that.

In the 1990s they had a spiraling, out-of-control drug problem. Addiction was skyrocketing. Drug-related pathologies were increasing rapidly. They were taking this step out of desperation. They convened a council of apolitical policy experts and gave them the mandate to determine which optimal policy approach would enable them to best deal with these drug problems. The council convened and studied all the various options. Decriminalization was the answer to the question, “How can we best limit drug usage and drug addiction?” It was a policy designed to do that.

Q: One of the things you found is that decriminalization actually correlates with less drug use. A basic theory would say that if you lower the cost of doing drugs by making it less criminally offensive, you would have more of it.

A: The concern that policy makers had, the frustration in the 1990s when they were criminalizing, is the more they criminalized, the more the usage rates went up. One of the reasons was because when you tell the population that you will imprison them or treat them as criminals if they identify themselves as drug users or you learn that they’re using drugs, what you do is you create a barrier between the government and the citizenry, such that the citizenry fears the government. Which means that government officials can’t offer treatment programs. They can’t communicate with the population effectively. They can’t offer them services.

Once Portugal decriminalized, a huge amount of money that had gone into putting its citizens in cages was freed up. It enabled the government to provide meaningful treatment to people who wanted it, and so addicts were able to turn into non–drug users and usage rates went down.

Q: What’s the relevance for the United States?

A: We have debates all the time now about things like drug policy reform and decriminalization, and it’s based purely in speculation and fear mongering of all the horrible things that are supposedly going to happen if we loosen our drug laws. We can remove ourselves from the realm of the speculative by looking at Portugal, which actually decriminalized seven years ago, in full, [use and possession of] every drug. And see that none of that parade of horribles that’s constantly warned of by decriminalization opponents actually came to fruition. Lisbon didn’t turn into a drug haven for drug tourists. The explosion in drug usage rates that was predicted never materialized. In fact, the opposite happened.

Bonus Video: Click below to watch Glenn Greenwald and Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie discuss both the lessons from Portugal and Barack Obama's disappointing performance so far on drug policy, executive power, and civil liberties.

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  • Some Guy||

    We'll get to this when all the baby-boomers who did drugs are in power...wait, no.

    We'll get to this when we have 3 Presidents in a row who did drugs...wait, no.

    We'll get to this when we desperately need the money being wasted on the drug war...wait, no.

    We'll get to this when...China dumps dollars and we turn into a 3rd world narco state?

  • Tricky Prickears||

    What effect did it have on the drug dealers, cartels and organized crime? I think any possible solution should consider the supply chain of drugs. Wasn't that the motivation for ending Prohibition? Especially, with what's been going on in Mexico lately.

  • Granite26||

    Good example of why smaller states are better: You can beat sufficient people over the head with the facts.

  • JW Gacy||

    In a talk at Cato (on cato.org) Greenwald made the point that a lot of the differences that people point to are irrelevant.

    Granite26, please explain why a larger country can't beat sufficient people over the heads with facts? After all, they have more people with which to do so. And we (the US) have far more resources per capita.

    You might as well have said, "well, it's probably a lot easier to explain in Portugese."

  • ||

    Well one in very minor issue I may quibble with Mr Greenwald.

    Portugal is not a "very poor country" if one looks at in a global context.


    It is a middle income country, certainly among the poorest in the EU and not "Luxembourg or Monaco" but can we really call it "very poor".

    Which actually makes it a closer model to the US.

    If say for instance Haiti or Mozambique , were to decriminalize drugs, analysts may wonder how this might apply to developed countries.

  • jk||

    Good example of why smaller states are better: You can beat sufficient people over the head with the facts.

    The Drug War exists for a variety of reasons, none of which are to curb supply or demand of drugs.

    It exists to help lawyers to get very wealthy.
    It exists to help those who invest in and run private prisons to get very wealthy.
    It exists to help police departments to search anyone, confiscate property and purchase all kinds of new toys.
    It exists to help politicos to snoop and interfere in private lives.
    It exists to help black market thugs to get very wealthy.
    It exists to help create disincentives to go to college or get a trade when one can get wealthy by participating in the black market.
    That is until they get caught, hire a lawyer, have their property confiscated, are put into prison, and stripped of their right to vote, hold a professional license, or bear arms.

    The Drug War is a tool for power.

  • kevin||

    Umm, NotaLibertarian, how is Portugal (GDP per capita=~17000) more like the US (GDP per capita=~42000) than Monaco (34000)?

  • ||

    well all meant as "relatively" closer to the US than a truly "very poor" nation like Honduras.

    It seems that Portugal is very roughly comparable to Puerto Rico in terms of GDP per capita.

    Thus poor but not abjectly unable to combat drug use, should it have chosen to.

    Again, all a minor point but I didn't want to affront the Lusophones in your readership.

  • ||

    Legalize pot. Decriminalize everything else except meth and crack.

  • ||

    Hey, I want my meth and crack.
    There's nothing quite like smoking meth first thing in the morning, fuck coffee, that is a real pick me up, lol

  • million||

    The Dept of Justice's DEA has this to say on their website with regard to Portugal...

    "Portugal is a nation plagued by many of the drug problems that persist in Europe. Unlike many of its neighbors who have witnessed a reduction or stabilization in the opiate addict population, Portugal's addict population and the problems that go along with addiction continue to increase."


    My understanding is heroin use has decreased significantly in post-2001 Portugal. Does the DEA now (mistakenly) classify marijuana as an opiate to justify their website info?

  • </||

    Keep pot illegal.Make the penalty for possession or testing positive for metabolites be a 10k fine(sale and possession for sale would be legal if you are "clean").Balance the budget and pay down the debt on the back of those brain damaged stoners.

    Legalize everything else outright.

  • ||

    What are you on, anyway? That makes absolutely no sense.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

  • Mattus||

    Portugal is not a poor country, it's standard of living is very high. Let's not confuse gross earnings as the sole measurement of standard of living. You need to factor in net income as well as cost of living. For example, the Portuguese have one of the lowest property tax schemes in the developed world, very low insurance costs, and housing which is very affordable, free healthcare etc. That means that a little money goes a longer way in Portugal than say, Canada. When you do the math, you'll find the gap between the so-called rich nations and Portugal is not so big afterall.

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    The policy was formulated by activists supportive of the Libertarian International Oreganization as a first step as one can see from articles at http://www.Libertarian-International.org

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